Keep Birds Healthy with Woodchips for Chicken Run

Turn woodchips for a chicken run into the perfect mulch for gardens and a food forest.  Wood chips are the best ground cover for chicken and duck runs due to being high in carbon and low cost.  Source chips from arborists cutting and pruning trees.  Use a thick layer of chips in the run and mix the manure into the wood.  Scoop out the wood chips from the run a couple of times per year and stack into a compost pile to mature and apply the finely broken down wood chip and chicken manure combo throughout your vegetable garden beds and food forest fruit trees and shrubs.

Chicken Run Ground Cover Options

Every chicken run should have a ground cover.  There are many options, but one that we choose to use for our flock.  Wood chips are the greatest of all time for our food forest needs.  The wood chips are a carbon-heavy material.  This means they are perfect for absorbing large amounts of nitrogen in the form of chicken manure and all the rest of the kitchen scraps that end up in our chicken compost in the chicken run.  Wood chips are also perfect for our ducks and their messy water.

Many options to choose from when considering a ground cover for a chicken run.  Many poultry runs are covered with straw, pea gravel, sand, or left bare.  I still feel wood chips for a chicken run are the best all-around option, but let’s take a look at the choices.

Wood Chips

Wood chips are perfect for chicken and duck runs. The chips from an arborist are generally free.  You can find free or nearly free woodchips online.  Whether using a service that aggregates arborists looking to get rid of chips or contacting one directly over the phone, there is many sources of chips from companies cutting and pruning trees.

Wood chips are heavy sources of carbon.  Chicken manure is heavy in nitrogen.  As the chicken poop mixes with the wood chips they eventually start to break down into the most perfect mulch for the food forest and gardens. The best wood chips for use in the chicken run are smaller pieces.  If the woodchipper is not sharp it can create longer strips of wood which is not as easy to work with in the run.  Prior to placing chips in the chicken run pull out any large pieces that will not break down.

When keeping a chicken run with a thick layer of wood chips you can stir the material and occasionally add a scoop of chips to soiled areas.  Stirring the chips up incorporates the manure into the wood chips and adding a scoop of fresh chips buries the poop to continue the composting process right where it lays.  We place a large pile of wood chips inside of the chicken run and slowly incorporate more chips into the run.  Over time we move the most soiled chips from run to continue to break down in a compost pile.

Wood chip chicken runs require regular maintenance but it is not a daily task like with other ground covers.

woodchips for the chicken run


Straw is an excellent choice for chicken coops.  However, it is less than ideal for a chicken and duck run.  Straw gets wet and stays wet.  During the wet months of the year straw will get very nasty quickly.  As it breaks down it will smell bad.  Straw is also a cost.  Every straw bale that you buy is a cost added into the cost of maintaining your flock.  We do like straw in our duck house and buy a bale as needed, but if we used in the general run we would go through a couple of bales every month or more.

While straw is also heavy in carbon and will absorb the nitrogen from the chicken poop.  It tends to clump up once wet and get moldy and decompose in layers.  We do compost the straw that we remove from the chicken coop in whatever pile we have working at the time.

Pea Gravel

Pea gravel is an option for chicken runs.  This will have a decent upfront cost as a few yards of pea gravel is more expensive than free wood chips.  The good thing about using pea gravel for the run, is once it is purchased and loaded into the run, you do not need to refresh the gravel nearly as frequent as you do with wood chips or straw.  The downside is that it does not absorb the manure from the chickens and ducks.

Chicken runs with pea gravel require regular maintenance.  Similar to picking up after a dog pooping in he backyard, the chicken poop needs to be scooped out.  This is exactly like cleaning a cat’s litter.  Using a litter scoop, shovel up the chicken manure daily and place into a compost pile.  The downside is that it requires regular maintenance.  However, the upside is the chicken run is kept very clean which reduces the smell and potential for negative issues like fly populations going out of control.


Using sand for the chicken run is like pea gravel.  The pros and cons are the same.  It has an initial cost upfront to buy the sand and wheelbarrow the heavy loads into the run area.  Then it requires daily maintenance to keep clean.  Sand for ground cover is nice and soft on the chickens feet and makes cleaning up everyday the easiest.  If you are hyper-concerned about maintaining a very clean coop, go with sand.

Bare Ground

Don’t do a bare ground chicken run.  The chickens do like to have a bar ground spot to make a dust bath.  However, the birds will enjoy having some kind of ground cover on the dirt.  Bare ground runs get very nasty.  The manure from the chickens and ducks do not absorb well directly on the ground.  They will cake up and turn into a mess.  These chicken runs get smelly and attract house flies and other vermin due to the odors.

Requesting Arborist Chips for Chicken Run

I request no hedge plants like laurels and arbor vitae and try and order during times that trees have less foliage.  I have not had any health issues with our birds using conifer trees with needles.  Similarly, our flock has not had feet problems due to any splinters from hardwoods in the mix.  We do not use the wood chips the actual coop of the chickens that has straw that gets swapped on a routine basis.

arborist woodchips for a chicken run

Why Wood Chips are Best for Chicken Runs

Wood chips are the best material for ground cover in a chicken run due to their low cost and ability to absorb large amounts of nitrogen.  Wood chips are free or a very low cost when sourced from a tree cutter.   You can contact local landscaping and tree pruning companies to find sources of this material or use one of the websites that help facilitate connections between arborists and gardeners.

Chicken manure is a very hot source of nitrogen.  This means that it needs a lot of carbon to break down properly.  The chicken poop is also very wet and smelly.  Wood chips are effective in absorbing that moisture and subsequent odor.  All that is required is to occasionally stir or turn the wood chips in the run occasionally to work the poop into the chips and below the surface.

While there has not been significant research on woodchips and chickens from a safety perspective, I’ve always avoided laurels in my request for chips.  It is recommended to avoid using cedar shavings for bedding for chickens and this may be a species you want to avoid.  We have had no issues with conifer trees, but it is something to consider if you have a lot of young birds and receive a 100% cedar load.

Wood Chips and Duck Run

Our chicken run initially started as a duck run.  We eventually added chickens to our flock and now both the chickens and ducks use the run.  We started with wood chips for the ducks and it worked well so decided to continue to use them for our chickens.  Ducks are very messy eaters, their poop is wet, and we let them have pool parties.  Initially, we used straw in the run.  It was a disaster.  The straw gets wet, stays wet, mats up, and starts to rot and reek.  Never again.

Wood chips will always be our ground cover.  We use straw in the duck house and the chicken coop and it spills out into the general run, however, it is minimal and does not mat up like when we used it as a full ground cover.

Tools for Moving Wood Chips

Once you are set on covering the ground in the chicken run with woodchips, get the tools for the job.  My favorite tool for scooping woodchips is a regular pitchfork.  Use the pitchfork for scooping chips into a wheelbarrow and then dump them where you need in the run.  A garden fork will work in a pinch if you dont have a pitchfork, but please avoid using a shovel.  Using a shovel for wood chips is just a pain.  It is hard to get a full scoop and jamming the shovel all the way in requires a lot of work. The only time I use a shovel for wood chips is when using a snow shovel to get the last of a pile cleaned up.

duck run woodchip supply


The pitchfork with five or six curved tines is the best for scooping wood chips.  The tines of a pitch fork slide into the woodchip pile with ease requiring less force for each scoop.  This will save your arms when moving large piles of chips.

Garden Fork

A garden fork is a good option if you do not have a classic pitchfork in your garden tool shed.  The straight tines make it slightly more difficult to get a good angle into the pile compared to the pitchfork.  I find it also does not have the same capacity as the pitchfork.  This is due to the reduced area of a four tine garden fork with straight tines.  A garden fork is still significantly superior to a shovel.


Moving chips without a wheelbarrow is torture. Sure you can fill up 5-gallon buckets and move chips around one bucket at a time.  However, this becomes very laborious very quickly. A few wheelbarrow loads is equivalent to dozens of trips with a 5-gallon bucket.  If you need to cover a mess a bucket of chips is fine, but when cleaning out a chicken run or adding fresh ground cover.  Use a wheelbarrow to move the material efficiently.

woodchips in a wheelbarrow

When to Change Wood Chips in Chicken Run

Change the woodchips in the chicken run every three to six months.  Depending on the size of the run and the number of birds in your flock will determine the frequency you need to follow for changing the run material.  While it is wise to change out the material in your chicken coop and duck house on a weekly basis, the run is something that can be done less frequently.  We lengthen the time in between each complete clean-out session by applying additional chips into the run every couple of weeks.  Stirring the chips is another option for mixing in the manure into the chips.

using a wheelbarrow to move wood chips

Woodchips and Chicken Manure Compost

It is easy to keep a large pile of clean chips near the chicken run.  Every couple of weeks add an inch or two to the run.  We scoop out the entire run every 3 to 6 months and set it aside into a large pile.  We rarely turn this pile and allow it to just continue to break down.  When allowed to just sit and break down the pile turns hot, then cools and eventually becomes a home to thriving fungal compost material.  Fruit trees absolutely love chicken manure wood chip compost that is partially broken down as mulch.

We aim to have a large pile of partially composted wood chips every single fall.  The food forest gets a heaping pile of these chips placed next to every tree and shrub.  This gets incorporated into the soil during the winter rains and saturates the ground below the woodchips in the food forest with all the goodness from the chicken run.